Not for the first time, we were sat in the packed Thirsty ‘biergarten’ on a Sunday afternoon wondering what made it so popular. We’d walked 15 minutes from the city centre to get there, mostly to get some photos so I could finish the blog post about it I’d started after our last visit, but what drew so many other customers? Providing a temporary place to drink beer within sight of a river was bound to appeal, but is it really as ‘revolutionary’ as Thirsty believe? I mean, less than half a mile (650 metres precisely) downriver, the Green Dragon has a beer garden on the river bank, but I’ll have bet that wouldn’t be nearly as busy. Good beer helps, sure – the Green Dragon won’t have ‘craft’ beer from the likes of Howling Hops and Lost and Grounded, but of the three beers on at Thirsty at the time, two were lagers and the other a pale ale, surely not the deciding factor. Maybe it’s not the beer at all, and the food is what separates them, pop up vs. pub grub; but again, the van at Thirsty on this particular day was offering cheese toasties, which unless I’m missing something, isn’t too far off the cheesy garlic ciabatta any Greene King pub could throw together.
Looking around, it was hard to see the commonalities in a mixed crowd that was perhaps predominantly young but spanned a wide age range. Affluence was probably the defining characteristic, especially at Thirty’s card-only ‘cashless’ bar, yet there are plenty of traditional pubs in Cambridge frequented by the flush, and the nearby Haymakers on the same side of the river as the Green Dragon does good trade from the tech companies around the Science Park. The only shared attribute seemed to be that everyone was relaxed. About to order another drink, we thought instead we’d wander along to the Green Dragon to compare and contrast. That was our mistake.
The Green Dragon is one of Cambridge’s oldest inns, a timber-framed, crooked-roofed building listed as 16th century, and described as “an ancient victualling house” even by 1630 when a license was granted (Enid Porter, Old Cambridge Inns). It was a regular in the Good Beer Guide until it dropped out a few years back, described then as serving “excellent food” and offering “friendly company”. The interior walls featured various local artefacts, including a display which told of an old local who left the pub one evening to row home, with a collection of the possessions found on him when his body was recovered from the river the following morning.
Quite fond of this Green Dragon pub sign, sad to learn Cambridge council have now approved GK’s bland replacement pic.twitter.com/GmRQ4gUguL
— pints and pubs (@pintsandpubs) April 25, 2013
Naturally, just the kind of characterful, ancient pub that needed a ‘Flame Grill” refurb. So in 2012, out went the local history (I was told the local’s last possessions had been “thrown in the skip” when I enquired), the old pictorial sign to be replaced by a bland branded one until the outcry forced them to reconsider.
It wasn’t all bad though – they hadn’t removed the timber frames or bricked up the inglenook fireplace, and the beer garden got re-turfed a couple of years later and looked in good shape.
The Green Dragon was, it’s worth remembering, the only pub in this part of Chesterton at that point; the former Dog and Pheasant having been demolished, the Penny Ferry awaiting the same fate, and the Haymakers yet to reopen. In 2013 the Haymakers did reopen, and I know anecdotally that a fair few people, feeling the post-refurb Green Dragon lacked atmosphere and the food was increasingly disappointing, made the Haymakers their default destination and never returned. In contrast, the Green Dragon became the pub of choice for patrons from the nearby traveller’s site, who had previously frequented the Penny Ferry.
Now before I go on, I’ll make my position clear. I’ve no time for pub snobbery, and while not every pub is going to meet my tastes, I wouldn’t expect or want them to. The Green Dragon clearly offers an environment some people appreciate enough to keep going back to; for plenty of people this is their local, and I’m glad there are still pubs in Cambridge that haven’t been gentrified or raised their prices such that some people might be priced out of having somewhere to drink – it’s a long walk to a Hungry Horse or Wetherspoon from this part of town. But for me, it turned out to be the worst experience I’ve had in any of the 80+ pubs I’ve visited in Cambridge this year, and although that’s just my opinion, it perhaps goes some way to explaining why many people who might feel welcome at the packed Thirsty biergarten, might not feel so relaxed in the almost empty beer garden of the Green Dragon.
We stood at the bar next to a couple of sweary gents, so drunk they’d probably have fallen on their faces if the bar wasn’t there to prop them up. Fine with me, it’s a pub after all. I was shouldered out of the way while waiting to be served, but that’s not a first, and it’s a pub after all. A woman sat scowling at me while I waited for my Amstel – perhaps she objected to me asking again for Amstel when the barman, having misheard me, presented me with two glasses of Aspall. Fine with me, etc. After further shouldering, I grabbed the drinks and made a swift exit to the beer garden. Outside a couple of young lads who I’m pretty certain were from a local caravan site that might not be Caravan Club certified, tried starting a fight with an old man who had the audacity to be using the same pavement, but when he failed to react to their taunts their attention turned to a single female walking on the opposite side of the street. Their charming chat up line “Oi, get over here. Oi you, get over here” failed to elicit the desired response, so they went back in the pub. That’s not fine with me, it’s not acceptable outside a pub or anywhere, and I’ll take all the ‘snowflake’ taunts you can throw at me if you disagree.
The Amstel was proof even keg beer isn’t indestructible, and fearing the lads might return and look for other targets for their aggression, we decided to leave the drinks and get away from the area. It was actually a relief to cross the bridge and be away from the place, and this was 5 o’clock in the afternoon, good luck with a Friday night there. I cycle past it several times a week and it’s not the first time I’ve seen aggressive behaviour. Whatpub has this marked as ‘family friendly’, make of that what you will. Again, I’m not holding the pub responsible for customer’s behaviour, and we weren’t threatened, just intimidated. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. But I’m guessing this is why the pub and the beer garden were half empty, with an air of aggression hanging over it, while just along the river the biergarten was packed with people happily chatting and enjoying the sun. I won’t be going back to the Green Dragon any time soon, and no doubt that will suit me, the pub and the locals just fine.
UPDATE: It seems I’m not the only one who has found it a less than welcoming place recently:
Interesting read. There was an underlying air of menace when I popped in recently, I’m no shrinking violet but Idrank up quicker than normal
— UK Geocacher (@UKGeocacher) August 7, 2017